Setting Up a Buddhist Altar & Sacred Space

 

 

Setting-up A Buddhist Altar & Sacred Space
Rev. David Xi-Ken Astor

This guide is meant to assist in creating a home sacred space with an altar for your Buddhist practice.  It is intended for the Ch’an/Zen practitioner, as the various Buddhist schools have different practice intentions that are reflected in how the various elements of a space and altar are utilized.   As contemporary Zen teachers that work to find pragmatic lessons in all we do in life, we feel that how we approach our intentional ritual practice should be no exception.   It is not what we do, but how our body-mind is during practice that matters.

An altar is one element of creating a sacred space where we retreat to quite the mind and sit in awareness.  The environment associated with this special space is what matters, not what is in it.  However, having meditation cushions, items that act to remind us of the importance of what we have dedicated ourselves to practice, and a consistent location is of importance.  How we go about fulfilling these requirements will be different for each of us, depending on the various demands our private lives require.  There will be as many options and materials to use as there are creative ideas.  There are very few rules to follow.

Consider taking a chair/stool/cushion into different areas of your home or office and sit.  Let your bodymind quietly experience each space.  It may be the light, the noise level, the view, or just a vibe that makes a specific area “click” as the spot for your meditation practice.  —- Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

So, enjoy the project and send us pictures of what you have accomplished.  While Wayne Shi and I will not be able to visit your space in order to bless it, if you ask us to, we will do so with intentional mindfulness during one of our daily monastic services.

The Space:

Choose a location that is away from the more active areas of your home.  This is often a bedroom.  However, if you use a bedroom that is shared with a loved one, make sure you talk this over with them in order to obtain a consensus.  It is quite OK if the space is shared with others.  The area should be able to be shut off from the other spaces in the home during meditation/practice periods, if possible.  A space with limited or low light, and that is well ventilated, is preferable.   The idea here is to limit distractions, and create a space that is comfortable and inviting.

As mentioned, it is not necessary that the space be permanently set-up.  You might keep your supplies in a container and the cushions stored in a closet or under a bed, for example.  You can also acquire a wall altar that has doors that shut when not in use.  This is an excellent alternative for small spaces.  Many altars have been set-up on a bookshelf, and the meditation cushions brought out during practice time.   So be creative.  But the one basic requirement is that the space be consistent.   As we train the mind to be quiet, having a familiar space helps.

Altar:

A home altar is difficult to define.  It acts as a focal point of our practice space.  It is an anchor, and in many ways, represents our intentions.  As such, it can be very personal, and what we bring to it gives special meaning as we practice with it.  There are very few necessary elements that may be considered necessary; everything else are personal touches.

We recommend that your altar consist minimally of three tea candles to represent the Three Jewels, an incense burner, and a representation of an Universal expression.  The Universal expression is where your creative imagination comes into play.   Most often it is a statue of Buddha.  But that element is not necessary.   Other iconographic images can replace the image of Buddha.  They can be an eight-spoke Dharma Wheel, an image of the mudra hand, a specific image of a column, a throne, flowers – especially the lotus, something like a fan with the Heart Sutra printed on it, maybe a rock or other natural element even.  Perhaps a nice scroll or print on the wall behind your altar is something that you already have that you enjoy.  Some altars have a ‘minimalist’ look with the candles, an incense bowl and a few flowers.   Unlike the Tibetan or Pure Land Buddhist schools, it is not necessary to face your altar in a specific direction or level of the house.  A basement space is fine, and often preferred.  Don’t think your altar must be like what you see in temples and practice centers.  A home altar should reflect your own needs for achieving a bodymind state of peace and contentment.

The layout of the altar can vary, but the one we use that is more common to Ch’an Buddhism and adopted by EDIG is: the Universal expression such as a Buddha should be placed in the middle.  The three tea candles are placed one to the left and right sides, and one in the center of this image.  The incense burner is placed behind the central image.  If you don’t have space behind the Buddha image, place it in front but behind the central tea light.  Other items can be placed on the altar but in a way that does not disrupt this basic layout.  For example, I keep a picture of my three teachers to the far left, with a red votive candle in front of my late teachers picture.

Place your altar along a wall or in the center of a room.  Put your meditation cushions in front of it about five feet back giving you room to light the candles and perform the incense offering ritual.  If you have a chan bell, it should be placed to the left of the cushion, and a fish-drum to the right.  This is not necessary at all.  But as your practice matures, you will want to add these to your practice space in order to do bell meditation and chanting.

 

Have fun putting your altar together, but be thoughtful.  Maybe your altar is going to be a “work in progress” until you find the right elements that express your personal practice intentions.  Use the pictures below for some ideas.

If you are interested in obtaining an EDIG Practice Manual, please send us an email at engageddharma.ig@gmail.com

/\

WELCOMED AT TARA MANDALA, PAGOSA SPRINGS, CO

TM 08 DOOR

During a recent trip Mary and I found ourselves in Pagosa Springs, Colorado staying at the SOCO Motel.  Chris and Krista, both friends of the owners Autumn and Colin, and now friends of ours told us of a Buddhist monastery outside of town.  They offered to take us there on a beautiful Sunday morning.  After nearly 25 miles of dirt road we were at Tara Mandala.  We were greeted at the door by the icon above and by Sarah, one of the practitioners.

Led by Lama Tsultrim Allione, Tara Mandala is dedicated to the awakening of a compassionate heart through manifestation of Tara, the female Buddha of compassion.

Bodhi, the facilities manager took us on a tour and told us about the land and spaces.

Mandala Stupa.  Many items left here as personal offerings (the oddest was an orange clay pigeon for skeet shooting).

TM 05

Tara

 

The 21 Taras.

 

TM 04 VIEW

View from the third floor balcony of the main temple space.

 

In Pagosa Springs, Colorado there are two things you should do.  Visit Tara Mandala and stay at the SOCO Motel.

I bow with deep respect to the folks at the Tara Mandala, Sarah and Bodhi especially, and to Autumn, Colin, Chris and Krista at the SOCO Motel.

Dharma of the Individual

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhism in the West must find a way to skillfully harness the power of the individualistic view and action of those who choose the Noble Path. In each person is a reservoir of imagination, skills, gifts, compassion and the Buddha-element. These are reservoirs that can be tapped for the benefit of all. Their attitude might begin with the ideal of what’s in it for me. What does Buddhist philosophy and practice offer that will improve my situation? Each practitioner must be guided to the gradual realization that while expression is unique, suffering in some form is not. Awareness of the effects of the practitioners intent and action beyond themselves must be developed and nurtured so the realization that whatever the thought or action there are causal consequences.

There are practitioners who view Judeo/Christian beliefs as the cultural aspect of the West that Buddhism must come to terms with. In the West it is the dominant religious and social framework, especially in America. However, there is a prevailing psychological phenomena endemic to the majority of Americans regardless of religious or secular identity. Individualism. Finding skillful means of transforming perceptions of “what’s in it for me” to “what’s in it for all beings” is a major challenge for Western Buddhists.

We must first come to an understanding of individualism as a moral view and a social view common in the West. People who hold this worldview believe that the interests, wants and needs of the individual should come before that of any government or group. They resist all attempts by society or groups to interfere with their individual goals. The results of their individual actions might have some benefit to others but it is not their intention. Means of transforming individualism to an individual aware of the discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish of others and themselves equally, transforming individualism to an individual mindful of their own discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish.

In the Raga-vinaya Sutta: The Subduing of Passion (Anguttara Nikaya), the Buddha describes four types of individuals. There is one who practices only for their own benefit, one who practices only for the benefit of others, one who practices neither for their own benefit or the benefit of others, and one who practice for both their own benefit and that of others. The individualist tendency in the West is the first one described. That tendency is often what brings a Westerner to the practice of Buddhism, some want or need they hope that Buddhism can provide for them. The Buddha was clear that a Buddhist practice begins with development of the individual. He was equally clear that it must not end there. Skillful means must be found to lead the practitioner along a path to the fourth type of individual, one who practices for the benefit of self and others.

The lesson in the Lekha Sutta: Inscriptions (Anguttara Nikaya) offers a glimpse of that path. It describes three types of individuals based on their perceptions of their ability to transform. There is the individual that is like an inscription on rock, one that is like an inscription in soil, and one like an inscription in water. Each can be viewed as metaphor for the stages of bodymind in Buddhist practice.

An individualistic worldview combines the first type of person in each sutta. They will practice for only for their own benefit believing that like an inscription in rock their worldview is permanent. They hold to the ‘what’s in it for me’ mode of thinking and acting. Initially Buddhist practice can seem to verify this view. Emphasis is on personal transformation that begins with how that practice can improve the state of the individual bodymind. One learns to sit in meditation among a sangha, yet the bulk of that practice is done at home, alone, individually. One learns that emotions and habitual reactivities that plague the bodymind are transient phenomena, a view that the individual must come to realize. For a ‘what’s in it for me’ state of bodymind the serenity, the equanimity and the sense of personal accomplishment are enough, just what they were looking for. It is written in stone.

Siddhartha began his journey of personal spiritual transformation with the goal of understanding the forms of suffering he witnessed but never experienced. Prior to his achieving awareness of the plight of some human beings he was like an inscription in stone. In accordance with Hindu beliefs his personal and social actions were taken that would positively affect his rebirth. When he chose to leave his wife and child behind, to seek answers, he did so for his own benefit.

The next two types of individual present a danger to the bodymind and the view of an inscription in soil is a skillful way of getting beyond that danger. The view and action of one who practices only for the benefit of others misses entirely a critical aspect of Buddhism. The Buddha teaches that only with equanimity of focus on self and others can the value of the dharma be experienced. The person who practices neither for their own benefit or the benefit of others is going through the motions of being a Buddhist without any intent to engage the dharma in themselves or the world around them.

My nephew is an example of an individual who practices neither for himself or for others. He labels himself a Buddhist on forms for the United States Military because it allows him avoid particular requirements put on people of other faiths.

These views can seem to written in stone. In time and with effort any stone can be turned into soil. Buddhists are farmers and soil is where the unwholesome views and actions are weeded out and wholesome seeds planted and nurtured. Unwholesome views that are inscribed in a bodymind of soil can be transformed as the wind and water of the dharma wear them away allowing the planted seeds of appropriate view and intent to grow.

The fourth type of individual offered in the Raga-vinaya Sutta is the bodhisattva-in-training ideal, one who practices for the benefit of self and others. An individual that is like an inscription on water is most capable of reaching this view and intent, and taking the actions that arise as a result. They experience the current of the dharma from individualistic intent, to social intent, flow around the obstruction of neither self or social intent, to the realization that the dharma, when applied equally to self and other has its greatest value in the promotion of human flourishing.

Siddhartha transformed from one who practiced for their own benefit to one who practiced for the benefit of self and other. He awakened and stood up under the branches of the bodhi tree it is said he doubted his ability to teach others what he had come to realize as a Middle Path that could relieve the suffering of human beings. Siddhartha hesitated, and for that moment he was still practicing for himself. In the next moment he made the decision to try and transformed into one who would practice for self and others.

It takes skillful means to guide an individualistic Westerner along a path that not only accepts the benefit of the dharma to the individual but encourages it . . . in the beginning of practice, to the realization that practice of dharma is most valuable when equally engaged in service of the individual and society as that practice matures. This skillful means cannot just be the efforts and mentoring of a teacher. It must also arise in the thoughts and actions of the practitioner. To develop a mature Buddhist practice it takes both external and internal skillful means or one may find themselves inscribed in rock and fail to engaged the opportunities of soil and water to grow wholesome dispositions and habits.